Corporate portals: I can see clearly now

Enterprise portals can transform a nightmare maelstrom of online content into a haven of transparent, personalised information.

Accessing information and finding information are not the same things. The difference stems from an information management nightmare - a crush of online content - that exists in many if not most enterprises today, obscuring the material that employees might otherwise have at their fingertips. We find ourselves having to plunge into an enterprise-wide sea of unstructured information, with only a couple of poor search engines for assistance, to find just a nugget of information, the veritable needle in the data haystack. Enter the enterprise portal. A portal is a Web interface that organises information for the user. A personalised portal is one that organises information for a particular user. A personal enterprise portal is one that sifts through the wealth of corporate data to present the user with precise access to exactly the right information they need in support of their job - from the chair of the board down. It sounds like a good idea. Forrester Research, for one, has gone so far as to call the enterprise portal the "rebirth of the intranet", saying in a recent report that "portals take an interface favoured by employees [the Web] and bring it to bear on corporate legacy databases, providing navigation systems through these otherwise closed systems that radically opens them up". The need for such transparency is paramount. Apart from the content explosion that has already been alluded to - Forrester reports again that nearly 80% of organisations expect content growth, with almost a third predicting content doubling in volume this year alone - just the sheer time that knowledge workers are taking to deal with information, from emails to e-procurement, is seriously impacting productivity. Gartner predicts that the amount of time wasted by the average knowledge worker on document-related non-value-added tasks will increase to between 30% and 40% of their time by 2003. Enterprise portals have in fact come of age just in time, at least according to research from Butler Group. A survey of blue chip companies at a recent portal conference showed that 70% of the companies present had or were planning to implement a corporate portal within 12 months - a significant figure even given the self-selecting nature of the sample. The number of actual users online in operational or pilot projects varied from 10 to 22,000 per company, with a target of up to 90,000. The primary benefit these companies expect is integrated applications, stemming from the more effective distribution of information that portals represent. Collaborative working is also seen a priority, along with managing content and information. Knowledge management, marketing and e-commerce were considered the functions that are most likely to exploit portals. The more traditional users of corporate information such as human resources, finance, sales and research and development were perceived as less likely to use them, perhaps due to a perceived adequacy of existing systems. Purchasing, operations and production were generally not seen as areas that would be included within the portal. Jacques Hale, director of methods research at Butler Group, puts a positive spin on the results. "The main motivation is improving the effectiveness of the workers throughout the enterprise in accessing corporate resources, showing that the previously rather abstract ideas of knowledge management are becoming reality," he says. He also points out that the vendor's reputation was not a significant criterion when it came to choosing a particular product. "This fact shows that, for companies that are adopting this new type of application, innovation is more important than established track record," Hale says. "We should expect that the companies that are still in a watching mode will start adopting portals when the enthusiastic adoption by innovators is more widely known." Daniel Rasmus, vice president at Giga Information Group, agrees that many organisations are investigating portals today. "Project drivers can vary substantially, which creates a broad definition of 'portal'," he says. "The effective definition is one that is aligned with business objectives. Specific functional requirements for a portal project must be defined in the context of business goals, since there are a host of possible technologies and functionalities that could be involved. Choosing from the array of possible technologies and products will be difficult without a clear understanding of functional requirements, as dictated by objectives and audience needs." Of the challenges associated with portal implementation, many will be familiar to those who have worked on intranets and extranets, notably integration with the back office. And, of course, if you put dirty data in, you only get dirty information out. Portal projects do not remove these infrastructural issues, though often, as in the past with other online enterprise projects, portals are taken as the spur to address them at last. However, other difficulties traditionally associated with enterprise network projects can possibly be mitigated with portals. For example, portal vendors typically provide very functional security systems that are appropriate to the specifics of the task in hand. Alternatively, since portals are all about finding a path through the information maze, navigation tools are generally robust. Perhaps the most significant advance concerns the re-engineering that used to be required with intranets and extranets to make heterogeneous internal systems accessible to non-IT staff. The point here is that for many searches and even report generation, portal interfaces are already familiar to many, from years of Web surfing. Another appeal of the enterprise portal is that perhaps for the first time in the history of corporate IT, portals work rather like the organisation does itself since both are essentially a network of more or less orderly connections. In other words, the gap between the way a company actually works and the systems that support these processes should be significantly narrowed when it comes to portals, which in theory increases the effectiveness of the IT. However, while this synergy might seem attractive, experience shows that it is readily compromised in practice. Consider, for example, the case of an enterprise implementing a portal to centralise communications across a wide geographical area, say Europe. The problems here begin with the need that different European audiences have for local content in local languages. "To thrive with international [portals], multi-country localisers must wield their most effective lever - economies of scale from pan-European online offerings - to consolidate assets and cut costs across their local operations," says Forrester analyst Diana Janssen. "They will be challenged to do so while producing the skyrocketing amounts of content needed to populate pan-European multimedia sites. Even large firms will struggle to make the savings from shared technology infrastructure offset their content bill." A related issue is the potential portals pose for turf wars, a negative result of the transparency they bring to organisations' communications. If the balance between locally and centrally generated content it not managed correctly, it is possible that either the autonomy of local authors will be undermined by centrally stationed webmasters, or worse, that the plans of one regional office will offend those of another. According to the definition given above, enterprise portals are strictly speaking only concerned with internal communications. But of course, e-business to some extent undermines that clear sense of corporate boundaries, and so enterprise portals might also find a role in enhancing communications with stakeholders, notably customers, in short becoming the new extranet. Indeed, as Dr Therese Torris, research director at Forrester's European Research Center advises, enterprise portals should be seen very much in this light, since they could become a valuable tool in the struggle to keep customers loyal, and identify cross-selling and upselling opportunities. This points to a more general issue, that is assessing the return that portals deliver to the organisation. Return on investment is important not only in the sense of making sure companies get value for money, but in the deeper sense that portals should be sources of value creation, not just a means to cut costs. Being closely tied to business functions when they are most effectively implemented, organisations should look for the benefits that portals bring in terms of productivity and agility. This question of value has been addressed in the launch of a Web-based ROI calculator, from Nucleus Research and Mediapps. "ROI and payback periods are the two most important metrics to use when evaluating the benefits of any technology decision," says Rebecca Wettemann, managing director of international operations at Nucleus Research, discussing Mediapps' free ROI tool. "We hope decision makers can use this calculator to gain an unbiased understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of portal technology." Mediapps: Forrester: With over 2000 bedrooms across the capital, Radisson Edwardian Hotels is London's largest privately owned hotel group. A portal being rolled out across the chain's hotels, aims to draw information resources and enterprise applications into one interface. Working with Mediapps, Radisson Edwardian has been able to build quickly a customised, browser-based portal. As a thin client, the portal represented an excellent way to deliver applications and functionality to nearly 400 PC terminals with minimum disruption to users. However, the company also realised that a portal is only as good as the content it delivers so building a solid, Citrix-based foundation was of huge importance to the project's success. "Time consumed by our users searching for data has been drastically cut," explains Iype Abraham, head of IT at Radisson Edwardian. "The benefits of empowering each employee with the knowledge that is specific to them, and in a more informed manner, undoubtedly leads to improved productivity.' Source: Butler Group iPlanet E-Commerce Solutions, a Sun-Netscape Alliance, provides the backbone of Sun One, an open source platform that enables organisations to deliver smart Web services. iPlanet is currently offering a free 90-day trial worth over £35,000, which includes portal and directory servers along with consultation and deployment advice that can help companies create their own corporate portals. E-Business Review is teaming up with iPlanet and partner AccordIT, to offer one of our readers the chance to win the whole package and keep the software, for free. To enter, email your answers to the following questions to: [email protected] Closing date for entries is 26 October. Enterprise portals can transform a nightmare maelstrom of online content into a haven of transparent, personalised information.

Intranet rebirth

Perceptions of portals

Mind the gap

Struggling to make savings

The new extranet?

Further information

Case study: Off-the-peg portal at Radisson Edwardian

What to consider when selecting a portal
What generic portal features do companies think most important?
  • Security

  • Information search facilities

  • A single point of access to information

  • A single sign-on to applications

What generic portal features do companies think less important?
  • Support for business processes and workflow

  • Document directories

  • Personalised pages

When choosing a portal product what do companies think is important?
  • Performance

  • Integration with applications

  • Scalability

  • Development facilities

  • Features

  • Support for standards

  • Does it do what we want?

  • Does it fit corporate strategy?

  • Cost is the last consideration

Which portal suppliers do companies favour?
  • Plumtree

  • Microsoft

  • Computer Associates

  • Appsolut Software

  • Autonomy

  • CoreChange

  • SAP Business Objects

  • TopTier

  • Cognos

Competition: win a free corporate portal

  • What sort of organisation do you work for?

  • What sort of corporate portal is your organisation looking to deliver?

  • What sort of ROI are you expecting?

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